It wasn’t exactly a terrible beauty being born, but it was at least the moment when a politician given to uttering nonsense in a bombastic fashion said something true. Mark Gino Francois is the honourable member for Rayleigh and Wickford in the county of Essex (where he got nearly 73% of the vote in 2019), has been chair of the euphemistically titled European Research Group since 2020 and is a man who infamously calls a Jap a Jap. And at the end of last week he made an intervention in the House of Commons that was hard to argue with.
I am not a religious follower of Parliamentary affairs so I only got to Francois’s moment after Youtube, in its capricious way, decided to connect me to a video of a spectacular row in the Commons between the business secretary Kemi Badenoch and the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle (if a dressing down administered by a respected senior teacher to an arsey prefect can be said to be a “row”).
What’s it all about, Kemi?
It isn’t often that a Speaker demands of a Secretary of State “who do you think you’re talking to?” In fact I’ve never heard it before. So what had happened was that Badenoch had, in effect, announced a major government change to legislation which had already been through most of its stages in the House - and she had done it first in the pages of the Daily Telegraph and then in a written statement. However she had quickly been forced to come to the House to make the statement in person, thus allowing MP’s to question her on it. In her compelled address Badenoch, who for some reason sometimes likes to sprawl across the dispatch box and speak out of the side of her head, addressed the Speaker and said in unregretful tones that she was sorry that her actions had not been “to your satisfaction”. At which point Sir Lindsay’s rocket went up because, of course, this had never been a matter of the Speaker’s personal satisfaction but of respect for the House itself, and what Badenoch was doing was, in effect, mocking his ruling as being the product on an old man’s eccentricity. ‘If it makes you feel better”, she was saying, “I’ll say sorry”.
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Good theatre then, but what had all this been about in the first place? How had it come about? It took only a minor tumble further down the rabbit-hole to discover the greater matter and - however dry the subject turns out to be - one which exemplifies the Conservative party in the dying days of its power.
Some very modern history
In late September of last year the government introduced the Retained EU Laws Bill, the object of which claimed to be to get rid of those all those myriad regulations that were hold-overs from our half-century as members of the European Union and its predecessors and which derived from the EU. At the time there were estimated by the government to be over 2000 such bits of law, but in fact on examination it turned out there were nearer 4000. To the dismay of anyone at all expert - and even of those with simply most of their critical faculties intact - the bill included a “sunset” clause in which all of these laws, unless specifically repealed, would automatically lapse by the end of 2023. Leaving a gaping regulatory void. The argument was that the civil service and legislators would be so energised by the prospect of this abyss that they would find a way of not falling into it.
During the autumn and winter, as the bill proceeded through the Commons this was what the government argued. A few Conservative backbenchers demurred, partly on the grounds that the Bill also conferred exceptional legislative powers on ministers without need for further reference to the House. But the most obvious objection was that the sunset clause created a danger, the size of which it was impossible to calculate. In the second reading debate last October, for example, Hilary Benn argued that: :
Part of the problem is that we have no idea, and I do not think the Government have any idea, which bits of EU law the Government want to scrap, which bits they want to amend and retain and which bits they want to keep in their entirety. We know that there is a list; reference has been made to it. It is not a little list—it is a jolly big list.. I echo the plea made by other Members: I really hope that the Government have counted everything. To paraphrase Lord Denning’s famous phrase, now that the incoming tide of EU law has ebbed away, have Ministers and civil servants searched every estuary, every river, every tributary and every salt marsh to make sure they have found all the bits of legislation that will be subject to this Bill? It is really important that they have done so, because if they have missed anything, that bit of legislation will fall in December next year—it will disappear from the statute book, whether Ministers want it to or not.
Faced with this disappearance it followed that the natural tendency of those tasked with implementing the Bill would be first to try and work out - by searching every estuary - which bits of regulation the country, agriculture and business could simply not afford to see suddenly lapse.
The Sunak government ignored Benn and all the others arguing against the sunset clause. Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt in full sword-wielding mode, was for her part sure that a properly energised civil service would find a way through. As Mark Francois entirely correctly pointed out on Thursday the Bill - with the sunset provisions - passed by 50-plus majorities at both its Second and Third Readings - the last time without a single Conservative MP voting against. Not one. “What on earth”, demanded Francois of Badenoch, “are you playing at?”
Yes indeed, what ARE they playing at?
Let’s take a step back. All the way in fact to last August - ie all of 9 months ago. And as we step, let’s recall how often it is argued that that whatever else he is, Rishi Sunak isn’t Boris Johnson. He’s not a blusterer like BJ. He’s not an over-promiser. He’s not a betrayer. He’s a pragmatist who gets things done.
So there we are, crunching back in time as over broken glass, to the leadership campaign that culminated in the Conservative Party membership imposing Liz Truss upon the nation. Sunakites (not least those in the media) of course like to focus on their man’s warnings that Truss’s tax plans would lead to catastrophe. But as they would probably prefer to forget Sunak also had a set of his own crowd-pleasing promises. One of them appeared in a typically gauche video, which begins as a door marked “Brexit Delivery Department” is opened. A figure enters the room with a great pile of papers bearing the legend “EU legislation” which he drops on a desk and, to the sound of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, begins to put in a paper-shredder. This repeal of EU laws is promised within Sunak’s first 100 days in office. It is as stupid and vainglorious bit of grandstanding as even Johnson or Truss managed in their times.
It was never possible of course, but you can see why the new prime minister felt obliged to get a move on once he had actually managed (by default, let us recall) to finally make it to No 10. So the Bill passes its Second and Third Readings with just everybody warning the government of its dangers. And in February becomes the responsibility of the new business secretary, Herewarda the Anti-woke, Kemi Badenoch. Who, of course, has voted for it in all its stages.
Reality rides in…
And sometime in the last few weeks the Fifth and most fearful Horseperson of the Apocalypse, Reality, entered Badenoch’s domain without knocking. Because, faced with an impossible task of identifying everything that might be changeable and changing it by December 2023, civil servants had served their country’s interests by first identifying which regulations we could not afford to have simply disappear. For which, of course, they are now being blamed. In her offending Telegraph piece last week Badenoch wrote that “Whitehall departments had focused on which laws should be preserved ahead of the deadline, rather than pursuing the meaningful reform Government and businesses want to see”. Getting rid of the sunset clause would assist them in not doing that, she added.
I said this case exemplifies the government in its terminal phase. And so it does, not least in how Badenoch subsequently presented what was a huge climbdown, and one which was argued for over the months by all the Opposition parties. So she told the Commons that the change was her decision, and a jolly clever one too and that if others couldn't see just how clever it was, then that was down to their own deficiencies. "It is delightful to see the Labour frontbench and the ERG to be on same side for once”, she told the House in best sixth-form debating style, “It makes me realise that if I am upsetting people on both sides I'm probably taking the pragmatic middle ground and I'm very pleased to be doing so."
What she was really saying…
Or, to put it another way, “I and this government have just wasted another eight months of civil service and parliamentary time in pursuing a doctrinaire approach to a deeply consequential matter, mostly to appease forces on the right of our own party. We have used every rhetorical trick in the book to justify this approach, but have reluctantly come to the view that it just isn’t practical. Now we will blame everyone but ourselves for its failure and do it with a simple arrogance which, if you think about it for five seconds, is simply breathtaking. So don’t think about it for five seconds. And here are some pictures of prison barges for refugees to take your minds off it.”
Who would have thought a bill dreamed up by Jacob Rees Mogg would ever be poorly conceived or impossible to implement? I still have to pinch myself occasionally when I remember that he was ever near the levers of power.
Tend to agree with Neil above David but will say that I liked your piece on Kemi Badenoch and your assertion the Tories are in their death throes. Wish I could really believe the latter though...🤪🤪🤪